How Does Reincarnation Work in Buddhism? Process + Stages Explained

Life After Death in Buddhism
Life After Death in Buddhism

Life After Death in Buddhism: Introduction. There have been all sorts of explanations trying to make death seem less unpleasant and frightening to man, and these have marked the history of philosophy and religious traditions; but generally we can speak of two types:

“The first is based on the belief in survival instincts. From the moment in which we believe there is an afterlife, that we could be immortal based on the spiritual principle that dwells in us, the soul, we only need to meet a certain kind of living standards […] Death is then a kind of physical test, a disease that makes us pass from this world to a better world […] The only concern is: Will I be saved or condemned? The other type of reasoning is purely philosophical […] it is to cultivate resignation and wisdom telling oneself that the destruction, the disappearance of this biological reality that is the self, an animal among other animals, is an ineluctable natural event, and that we have to resign ourselves to it” (1).

Buddhism could be within the spirit of the first argument. While Buddhism does not appear as a theistic religion, the spiritual practice that transforms death into something not to fear is based on a metaphysic view in which death is not seen as a terminal process. And while it becomes an end, it presents positive characteristics since it has exhausted the continuous series of reincarnations in a context of suffering, fear and frustration. According to Sogyal Rinpoche:

“From a Buddhist view, life and death are a single whole, in which death is the beginning of another chapter of life. Death is a mirror that reflects the whole meaning of life “(2).

Life After Death in Buddhism
Life After Death in Buddhism

Life After Death in Buddhism

Life after death in Buddhist view starts in the early years of its history and around the youth Prince Siddhartha (3) Gautama (4). The son of a noble man from the Shakya clan, he was protected by his environment against any unpleasant and frustrating experience.

However, despite all precautions, the future Buddha left the palace one day with his coachman; during the walk through a park, he saw “an old man bent and frail. Even with a cane he could hardly walk” (5).

In his next ride he had the chance to see “a sick man, who suffered great pains, fallen and wallowing in his own excrement” (6).

After a few days, the young prince came out of the palace with his charioteer and this time he met “many people dressed in different colors, building a funeral pyre ‘(7).

All these experiences filled the future Buddha with perplexity, disappointment and sadness. Again, he went for a walk and saw, on this occasion, “an individual with a shaved head, a hermit wearing a yellow robe” (8).

Indeed, in his walk around the park he found a wandering ascetic, a seeker of truth, that after abandoning his family, retreated to the solitude of the forest and continued his religious path as a beggar (9). Siddhartha immediately left his family and his luxurious palace (10), devoting himself in body and soul to the practice of various methods of asceticism and detachment (11). In the Majjhima Nikaya (I, 80) we can find a clear description of exaggerated rigor of such disciplines:

“I made my bed in an ossuary with the bones of the dead as a pillow. And the cowherd men approached me, they spat and urinated on me, threw garbage and introduced straws in my ears. Yet I do not recall any thought of hatred against them waking up. Such was my ability to withstand, without losing equanimity.”

Far from abandoning the ascetic practices, the future Buddha continued in that path, with increased attention to these exercises, driven by his desire to find an absolute reality in his being not to participate in the involution and feared death. Finally he realized that none of these disciplines could definitely get him away from death. He discovered, however, that such training serves to achieve very restrictive objectives. It is likely to delay the arrival of the inevitable death, as the Rig-Veda (X, XVIII, 3) says:

“Separated from the dead are the living. Now succeeds our invocation to the gods. We’re ready for dancing and for laughter, because there has been a prolongation of our existence. ”

Read also: Reincarnation Cycle in Hinduism and Buddhism

However, it is not possible for an inner reality to emerge, a Jiva, soul, self or atman, which survives death.

The night of his “Awakening” (12), Siddhartha toured the different jhanas (“meditative absorptions”). This experience led him to the conclusion that everything is subject to expiration, transformation and disintegration. Indeed, the truth that the Buddha discovered is that all elements of existence are subject to impermanence (Pali, anicca), the insubstantiality (Pali anatta) and suffering (Pali dukkha) (13). To understand that impermanence is the core on which all that exists gravitates is the same as seeing how suffering emerges, what should be done for its completion; and finally, we can see the path leading to the cessation. There is only suffering, of which death is but an epitome (14). Gautama’s Enlightenment was the intuition of this truth:

“I realized: this is suffering. I realized: this is the cause of suffering. I realized: this is the end of suffering. I realized: this is the way leading to the cessation of suffering […] and by knowing, by perceiving it, my mind was free of the corruption of sensual desire, the desire for existence, free of the corruption of ignorance. The knowledge emerged in me”(15).

Life After Death in Buddhism
Life After Death in Buddhism

The Dhammapada (153.4) tells us the Buddha’s words after eliminating desire and spiritual ignorance, and having penetrated Nibbana (Nirvana), beyond illness, old age and death:

“Through many, tiring and exhausting series of rebirths, I searched for the builder of this house.

Now I have found you, oh builder, and you will never ever come back to build this house (body) again. Your beams (passions) are broken, the roof (ignorance) is destroyed. My mind has reached Nirvana and the end of desire. ”

Apparently, at first, the intention of the Buddha was to keep silent about his discovery, fearing perhaps the rejection of the people when he announced that they had no self or soul that could guarantee them continuity through the process of death. In the Digha Nikaya (II, 35-36) we read the following:

“Then, monks, thought the Blessed One, the Arahant, the Buddha Vipassi: ‘Suppose I were to teach the Dhamma now’. And then he thought: ‘I have come to this Dhamma, which is deep, hard to see, hard to grasp, quiet, sublime, beyond the rational, subtle, only to be captured by the wise. But this generation delights clutching things, rejoices in them and delights in them. But for those that both delight and rejoice clinging to this matter, is hard to see, namely the conditional nature of things, or conditioned arising. Similarly it would be difficult to contemplate the calmness of all mental formations, the abandonment of all components of rebirth, the decay of desire, the extinction of passion, the cessation and Nibbana. And if I were to teach the Dhamma to others and they did not understand me, this would produce fatigue and distress in me.

And the Lord Buddha Vipassi spontaneously came up with this verse, never previously heard:

I have achieved this, why should I proclaim?
Those full of lust and hatred never will capture (get) it.

This Dhamma goes against the current; It is subtle, deep, hard to see; only those that are not dominated by passion can see it. ”

Then Lord Buddha Vipassi considered it all; his mind was inclined rather to the non-action than to teaching the Dhamma. ”

Despite all his doubts, the Buddha decided to share his knowledge and for it he chose the five ascetics, his former colleagues in the search for Truth. The Buddha addressed the five ascetics like this:

There are two extremes, O Bhikkhus, which he who has given up the world, ought to avoid. What are rhese two extremes’? A life given to pleasures, devoted to pleasures and lusts: this is degrading, sensual, vulgar, ignoble, and profitless; and a life given to rnortifications: this is painful, ignoble, and profitless. By avoiiding these two extremes, O Bhikkhus, the Tathagata [a title of Buddha meaning perhaps “he who has arrived at the truth”] has gained the knowledge of the Middle Path which leads to insight, which leads to wisdom which conduces to calm, to knowledge, co the Sambodhi [total enlightenment], to Nirvana [state of release from samsara, the cycle of existence and rebirth].

“Which, O Bhikkhus, is this Middle Path the knowledge of which the Tathagata has gained, which leads to insight, which leads to wisdom, which conduces to calm, to knowledge, to the Sambodhi, to Nirvana? It is the Holy Eightfold Path, namely,

Right Belief [understanding the truth about the universality of suffering and knowing the path to its extinction],

Right Aspiration [a mind free of ill will, sensuous desire and cruelty],

Right Speech [abstaining from lying, harsh language and gossip],

Right Conduct [avoiding killing, stealing and unlawful sexual intercourse],

Right Means of Livelihood [avoiding any occupation taht brings harm directly or indirectly to any other living being],

Right Endeavor [avoiding unwholsome and evil things],

Right Memory [awareness in contemplation],

Right Meditation. [concentration that ultimately reaches the level of a trance],

Read also: History Of Reincarnation: The Ancient And Original Beliefs

Then the Buddha explains what will be the core of his doctrine. It does so in the famous sermon, considered the “first speech of the Buddha”, with which he began his public ministry. At that time, the beginning of the new doctrine to be proclaimed, the Buddha ‘set in motion the Wheel of Dharma’. The content of this sermon is in the Mahavagga (I.6.19-22) and says:

This, O Bhikkhus, is the Noble Truth of Suffering: Birch is suffering; decay is suffering; illness is suffering; death is suffering. Presence of objects we hate, is suffering; Separation from objects wc love, is suffering; not to obtain what we desire, is suffering. Briefly,… clinging to existence is suffering.

“This, O Bhikkhus, is the Noble Truth of the Cause of suffering Thirst, which leads to rebirth, accompanied by pleasure and lust, finding its delight here and there. This thirst is threefold, namely, thirst for pleasure, thirst for existence, thirst for prosperity.

“This, O Bhikkhus, is the Noble Truth of the Cessation of suffering: it ceases with the complete cessation of this thirst, — a cessation which consists in the absence of every passion with the abandoning of this thirst, with doing away with it, with the deliverance from it, with the destruction of desire.

“This, O Bhikkhus, is the Noble Truth of the Path which leads to the cessation of suffering: that Holy Eightfold Path”

Life After Death in Buddhism
Life After Death in Buddhism

Life after death in Buddhism: The doctrine of non-entity, or “non-self” (anatta)

By Atman, I, soul, ego or self, is meant an unchanging, absolute and eternal entity beyond the phenomenal universe, that dwells within the human body. Some sacred traditions affirm that man has an individual and eternal soul created by the deity; when the body reaches death, this eternal principle can proceed to a heavenly or demonic world, according to the decision of his Creator God. Others like Hinduism hold the belief that this entity is going through countless lives and experiences until the total liberation, moksha: the identification of the Atman, the “self”, the consciousness with Brahman, the Absolute. This soul in man is responsible for the thoughts and feelings, and is the receiver of rewards and punishments for all positive or negative behaviors. This belief is known as the idea of self.

Meanwhile, Buddhism is the only philosophy and sacred tradition that states emphatically and persistently the absence of a Self or Atman (17). According to the Buddhist doctrine:

“The idea of self is a false and imaginary belief that lacks a corresponding reality, and causes harmful thoughts of ‘me’ and ‘mine’, selfish desires, greed, attachment, hatred, malice, conceit, pride, selfishness and other blemishes, impurities and problems […] it is the source of all disturbances in the world, from individual conflicts to wars between nations “( 18).

From the Sermon of Benares to his last words, the Buddha strongly emphasizes that everything is transitory, even the self (19). In the maha-Parinibbana-Sutta (III, 66), we find the last words spoken by the Buddha before his death: “All things tend toward aging. Work diligently for your salvation.”

It is not easy to face the idea of the total disappearance of oneself, although this work done consciously leads to the dissolution of suffering:

“There is no body that is permanent, stable […], there is no feeling, no perception, no activities, no consciousness of any kind […]. Then the Buddha put in his hand a piece of cow dung and said to his brother, even a fragment of self as small as this, brother, would not be permanent, stable and eternal “(20).

Through a rigorous analysis, the Buddha states that everything that exists in the world can be classified into five categories, “elements”, “groupings” or “aggregates” (Pali, Khandha) (21); they describe, succinctly, the universe of things and the human condition. And they are:

The aggregate of matter (pali, rûpakkhandha) covering the realm of physical substance; the aggregate of feeling (Pali, vedanākkhandha); the aggregate of perception (Pali, saññakkhandha); the aggregate of mental formations (Pali, samkharâkkhandha); the aggregate of consciousness (Pali, viññânakhandha). Only nirvana is not conditioned or “built”; therefore it can not be located between the “aggregates”. In the words of the Dhammapada (146-148):

“How can there be laughter, how can there be joy in a world that is always burning? Why don’t you seek a light you who are surrounded by darkness ?
Look at this attired piece, covered with wounds, composite, sickly, full of ideas, but without force or grip.
This body is consumed, full of diseases and feeble; this heap of corruption fragmented into pieces; Life, of course, ends in death. ”

Through rigorous analysis, Buddhism states that behind the five aggregates nothing appears likely to be interpreted as ‘self’, Atman or some permanent and unchanging substance. Or to express it with the words of Buddhaghosa:

“There is only suffering, nobody who suffers;
there is the act but not the cause of it “(22).

Life After Death in Buddhism
Life After Death in Buddhism

And in the Samyutta (22.94) we read the following:

“The body is impermanent and subject to decay. This, brothers, is what remains in the world of the wise, and I also affirm “this is so.” Similarly we have to consider the feelings, perceptions, activities and consciousness. ”

The same result comes the doctrine of “origin-inter-dependent” or “conditioned arising” (Pali, Paticca-Samuppada), according to which in the world there is nothing absolute; everything is interconditioned and insubstantial (23):

“The theory of patichchasamuppâda is inspired by two characteristic intellectual attitudes of Buddhism. On the one hand, the causalist view of reality, considering that all phenomena have a cause that determines and explains and therefore to end a process is necessary to find the cause and destroy it. On the other hand, the concept of universal interdependence of all things: every phenomenon has a cause and is itself cause of another phenomenon “(24).

From ancient to the present time, there is a belief that there is in man a consciousness in the form of a permanent and lasting soul, which persists for the duration of life and death, transmigrating from one life to another linking together the different existences. However Buddhism flatly denies the existence of an eternal, unchanging soul or (25), entity created by the deity or resulting from divine essence.

According to Samyutta Nikaya (III, 130):

“There is no talk of ‘self’ as a body, or as a feeling and so on. However, I see that these five groups of attachment lead me to the idea of a ‘self’. ‘I am’ can not be found between these aggregates. ”

Therefore when aggregates are dispersed we are in the presence of death, and as there is nothing apart from the khandas, there is no need to be reborn (26):

“Aggregates cease and nothing exists; disaggregation of the aggregates is known as death “(27).

Read also: Reborn After Death: Maya and Buddhist Beliefs Compared

Does this conception of life after death in Buddhism mean that death is the dissolution or the end of what we know as life, with no future consequence? Buddhist texts insist that there is no self or soul reborn throughout this process (28), but they claim that there is continuity of consequence. The Buddha in fact, stayed away from the beliefs that hold that there is an immortal and unchanging soul and holding that no element of modern life continues in another, proposing instead a middle way between the two beliefs.

“How is it that there is eternity? Because some are the skandhas (components) at the end of a life and others are the Skandhas participant of the new birth (not that the skandhas of the end of a life are the same as participating in the new birth). The skandhas contained in the end of a life are interrupted; and arise unitholders of a new life skandhas: that is why there is no eternity. How is it that there is no annihilation? Because the skandhas participant of a new birth do not arise when the skandhas of the end of a life have already interrupted, nor when they have not been yet interrupted: the skandhas of the end of a life are interrupted at that moment the skandhas arise in the new birth. So there is no annihilation. Thus the series of beings, without continuity solutions that allow to speak of an annihilation, without subsistence elements that allow to speak of eternity. That series is, according to a repeated example, like the flame that burns lit at dusk until tomorrow, not being the same but strictly speaking, it can’t be said to be another “(29).

What if there is a self that is reborn? Buddhist reflection indicates that there is a karmic consequence that flows from one existence to another. The components or elements of any manifestation of life are the staging of a previous very long history, governed by karma.

“All we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made from our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with positive thoughts, happiness follows him like a shadow that never leaves him” (30).

Therefore, the positive or negative reincarnations can not be considered as punishments or rewards, but simply as natural effects of certain behaviors:

“Karma is often compared to a seed, and the two terms designating a karmic result, vipaka and phala, respectively mean” maturation “and” fruit “. Thus, an action is like a seed that, sooner or later, and as part of a natural maturation process, produce fruit adjusted the author of the action. What determines the nature of the karmic “seed” is the will or intention underlying an action […] aspects of life that are considered consequences of past karma include the type of rebirth of the person, their social class to birth, their general character, crucial, both good and bad events that happen, and even the way we experience the world “(31).

It was the Buddha himself who incorporated in his teaching the ancient Indian belief in reincarnation and karma (32). These two concepts holding a place of importance in the Buddhist doctrine. To these must be added the belief in the absence of self.

If there is no self or soul, what moves on from one life to the next? It does not seem to be the self, at least in the sense that it is a single subject of experience passing from one life to the next life:

“Imagine, brothers, the Ganges river dragging an immense amount of foam, and a man of normal eyesight had to look at it carefully and even look into its nature. Looking at it, watching it and penetrating its nature, he should find it empty, insubstantial and without essence […] Similarly, what essence, brothers, could be in a body? […] What essence, brothers, could be in a feeling? […] As with the perception […] what essence, brothers, could be in the activities? […] What essence could be in the consciousness? “(33).

However, it is not impossible to refer to a group of elements and call it so and so:

“This particular aggregation, which is the human form of appearance, constitutes it so it is aware of itself, and can therefore refer to itself using the word ‘I’. In addition, it is so that also has memory of its previous condition. With everything, this sense of being who I am, and being an identity that continues over time, does not create nor does it constitute a self that holds itself thanks to its aggregated elements; simply points to the complex phenomena that emerges from this kind of aggregation (human being), which does have these self-referential properties and a persistent, but not eternal identity”(34).

In a famous passage of the work of Nagasena, Milindapañha, “Questions of King Milinda” appears the symbol of the chariot to demonstrate the king the absence of their own individuality. The text reiterates the fact that the components of the chariot and pull, representing the body and soul lack essential reality: The chariot and the self are agreed expressions to mean certain components, which have no independent or different existence from the aggregates that constitute them.

In the words of Nagasena:

“Because of the hair of the head, body hair.., the brain, the material form, feelings, perception, and mental formations and consciousness it is why there is this name of ‘Nagasena’. This word ‘Nagasena’ is just a denomination, a designation, a conceptual term, a current appellation, a mere name. For no real person can here be apprehended. This, sir, was expressed by the Vajira nun before the Lord:

“Just as all the parts causes the word ‘chariot’. In the same way, when they mean Khandha they commonly say ‘being’ “(35).

Since for Buddhism there is no self, soul, or atman of eternal and unchanging substance, but only the same continuity, it is obvious that one can not speak of “rebirth”. When a person dies, the karmic result not exhausted is transferred to the next life. This process is described by different symbolisms. One of the most widely used is the flame that burns through the night: it is not the same, nor a different one.

“A child grows up to become a 60-year-old man, for example, and certainly this is not the child, but neither is it someone else. Similarly, the being who dies here and is reborn there is not the same, however, nor is it another. It is a continuity of the same series. The difference between life and death is that only a moment of thought, the last moment of thought in this life conditions the first thought of the so-called next life, actually, is the continuation of the same series. So during this life, a moment of thought determines the time of the immediately successive thought […] While there is “thirst” to exist and to become, the cycle of continuity (samsara) goes on. You can only stop when its driving force, ie, this “thirst” be uprooted through wisdom which sees Reality, Truth, Nirvana ‘(36).

Life after death in Buddhism
Life after death in Buddhism

The ultimate goal in Buddhism: Nirvana

When desire, and related causes end, fear, frustration, ultimately, suffering ends. This is equivalent to Nibbana (sNirvâna) (37), the ultimate goal of the Buddhist teaching, which for centuries has not ceased to arouse the most diverse exegesis (38). The image that is used to express the extent of Nirvana (39) is that of the extinction of a flame (40):

“The approximate meaning of Nirvana is extinction (as when talking about the extinction of a flame). Indeed, what appears real, according to Buddhists, is not real, but merely “swollen”, when reduced and ultimately eliminated this swelling appears from the outside somewhat empty. From the inside, however, it does not appear somewhat empty. Nor can it be said that something appears full. Strictly speaking, the concepts that respond to the expressions ‘being empty’ and ‘being full’ are robust only when immersed in the delusion of individual existence. When individuality is suppressed through contemplation all the difficulties and all logical contradictions disappear. The definitions that Buddhists give to Nirvâna intend to be, therefore only approximations. From this point of view it is understood that Nirvana can be defined both negatively (“the void that appears when suppressing the swelling”) and positively (“the only-Spirit”, “single-Consciousness”, etc.) “(41 ).

What is extinguished by accessing the nirvâna is not life or consciousness, it is desire, greed, impulses that characterize the condition of a personality embodied in this world.

A well-known passage of Udana characterizes the nirvâna (42) as something that is completely different from the phenomenal universe (43) and the ideal of deep meditations and where not or exits are given, or desire, or perish, nor birth, there is no base of support and principle:

“There is, O Bhikkhus, the unborn, unoriginated, unmade, and unconditioned. Were there not the unborn, unoriginated, unmade, and unconditioned, there could be no escape from the born, originated, made, and conditioned. Since there is the unborn, unoriginted, unmade, and unconditioned, there is escape from the born, originated, made, and conditioned.”(44).

And it also says:
“Nirvana is difficult to understand,
because the truth is not easy to see.
The desire is pierced by the knower,
for whom sees nothing exists “(45).

From the above it can be deduced that nirvana is something totally different from the phenomenal universe, a “nothing” compared to all visible phenomena. It’s therefore determined only negatively, because it lacks any concrete note that can be expressed in mundane language.

The Buddhist predicaments as to nirvâna are characterized by denials as attempts to point out what it is. In any case, Nirvana can not be described, because it is a state of cessation devoid of content:

“From the perspective of the Awakened One, the Enlightened One, opposite verbalizations as Nirvana and Samsara, illustration and ignorance, freedom and slavery, lack of reference and content. For this reason the Buddha did not want to discourse on Nirvana “(46).

In almost all sacred traditions only after death it is possible to reach “heaven”. However the nirvâna can get to be experienced in the present life; One needs not to die to enjoy it. Buddhist texts are filled with concrete cases of nirvâna reached in this world, sometimes suddenly, as in the case of Sariputta, others after long years of practice, meditation and stress itself, as in the case of Ânanda or Siddhartha himself.

“When a person totally eradicates the trio (greed, hatred and delusion), which leads to becoming, he is free from the chains of samsara, the repeated existence. He is free in the full sense of the word. There is no longer any quality that forces him to be reborn as a living being, it has attained Nibbana, the absolute cessation of continuity and becoming (bhavanirodha); He has transcended the common or mundane activities and has risen to a state above the world, while still living in it: their actions do not have consequences, are karmically ineffective because they are not motivated by the trio, by the defilements (kilesa ) […] therefore, Nibbana is a ‘state’ realizable in this life “(47).

The Buddha attained nirvana for his own spiritual merits, becoming an awakened and compassionate being.

According to Buddhism, the ultimate goal of all being is the experience of nirvana. For all candidates to nirvâna who do not possess the spiritual qualities of the Buddha, the picture of demands is so severe, and so difficult is the way, the Mahayana school (“Great Vehicle”) has led to the bodhisattvas, forthcoming and powerful saviors, potential buddhas that have reached the threshold of nirvana but who choose to remain in this world to help all beings.

In connection with the death, the bodhisattva is very close to the concept of saving. The bodhisattva help the faithful to attain nirvana. In this sense, one of the Buddhas, Amitabha or Amida (48), provides his faithful a goal they can reach without much effort. This goal is to enter the Sukhavati (“the Blessed”), the Western Paradise or Pure Land (49) prior to the next reincarnation, the devotee can reach through faith in the saving grace of Amitabha. For Buddhists of the Mahayana school who worship Amitabha, Nirvana is a very distant goal. The search of nirvana has been replaced by an emotional relationship between two people: Amitabha, a savior buddha and a devotee who worships and longs for his life after death a “place” in their domains (50) .In Tibetan Buddhism, the dying and the recently deceased person is read the bar-do’i-thos-grol (51) (“the Liberation by Hearing in the Post-Mortem plane”) known as the “Tibetan Book of the dead. ”


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